Fast Food Salads That Use The Highest Quality Ingredients

Three salads on green background
Three salads on green background - Static Media

Fast food isn't all burgers, chicken, and fries. While menus for the likes of McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King are typically heavy in carbohydrates, saturated fat, and sugar, there's almost always another section (albeit, normally a much smaller section) that lists a handful of salads for you to grab and eat with as much ease as a Big Mac.

These salads tend to get a bad rap, and it isn't totally without cause. Many fast food salads are packed with as much, if not more, sodium as the "unhealthy" menu items. They can also be pretty high in fat, thanks to lashings of creamy dressings. But don't let that put you off completely. Not all fast food salads are built equal. If the building blocks are just lettuce, croutons, and fried chicken, then yes, you're probably better off just ordering the burger. However, some of the salads offered at your favorite fast food chains are actually loaded with high-quality ingredients that pack an impressive nutritional punch.

Don't get us wrong -- that doesn't necessarily mean they're low in calories. What it does mean, however, is that you're getting a lot more nutritional bonus points from your meal than if you'd ordered your usual cheeseburger and Coke. Next time you're looking for a healthier bite, check out these 11 fast food salads containing surprisingly beneficial ingredients.

Read more: The Healthiest Fast Food Chains In The U.S.

Strawberry Poppy Seed Salad, Panera Bread

Strawberry poppyseed salad and legs
Strawberry poppyseed salad and legs - Panera/X

Sweet and refreshing, Panera Bread's Strawberry Poppy Seed Salad is a summer favorite -- and for good reason. There's a lot going on in this salad, with a mix of romaine lettuce and fresh mandarin oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and pineapple, drizzled in poppyseed dressing and topped with toasted pecans. If you wish for an extra dose of protein, you can also pay a little more to add chicken.

With or without this protein boost, each bowl is already pretty solid with 8 grams of dietary fiber and 140 milligrams of sodium (a shockingly low number for a fast food menu item). People tend to have strong feelings on whether or not fruit belongs in a salad, but the nutritional benefits of strawberries should convince you they belong there. Sweet though they may be, they're low-glycemic, so won't boost your blood sugar too much. They're also rich in vitamin C, fiber, folate, and plenty of other antioxidants and nutrients that have been linked to a decreased risk of cancer. Throw in pineapple (which also contains antioxidants and may help decrease inflammation in the body) and this salad becomes one of the smartest dishes you could order at Panera.

Double Chicken Avocado Salad, El Pollo Loco

Chicken avocado salad green bowl
Chicken avocado salad green bowl - El Pollo Loco/X

There are two ways you can order the Double Chicken Avocado Salad at El Pollo Loco: in a tostada, or in a bowl. If quality is your concern, we recommend opting for the latter, with the tostada version containing 7 grams more saturated fat and a whopping 660 milligrams more sodium.

Considering the contents of the non-tostada version, we're going to go out on a limb and say you probably won't miss it much anyway. With heaps of chopped fire-grilled chicken, lettuce, corn, cotija cheese, salsa fresca, and avocado, this is the kind of über-filling salad you order when you're absolutely ravenous. Avocado is the MVP here, supercharging the salad with potassium, fiber, fat, and B vitamins that specialize in helping your body convert food into energy, as well as contributing to a healthy heart, brain, and gut.

The rest of the salad isn't too shabby, either. El Pollo Loco prides itself on doling out fresh ingredients and its chicken (which contributes a generous 54 grams of protein to the Double Chicken Avocado Salad) is never frozen. Feast away.

Kale Caesar Salad, Chop't

Kale caesar salad bowl
Kale caesar salad bowl - Chop't

Chop't is one of the founding fathers of fast food salads. Founded in New York City in 2001, it aims to make healthy eating exciting for all -- and never cuts corners to make that happen. It aims to locally source as much of its produce as possible, boasting a menu free of artificial preservatives and rich in nutritious, wholesome ingredients.

This entire list could be packed with Chop't salads for this very reason, but it's the Kale Caesar Salad that stands out to us most. Simple yet delicious, this contains romaine lettuce and kale, aged Parmesan, and artisan croutons (plus grilled chicken and creamy Caesar dressing, if you choose to add them onto your order, with the latter available in "light," "medium," or "heavy").

Caesar salads are a dime a dozen in fast food and fast casual restaurants, but Chop't stands out for its use of kale. Teeming with fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin K (which, no, does not stand for "kale"), it's often dubbed a superfood thanks to its role in preventing or reducing the risk of the likes of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. On a much less radical scale, it's also thought to relieve constipation and boost the production of collagen, aka the protein your skin needs to remain bright and bouncy. A superfood indeed.

Mediterranean Greens With Grains, Panera Bread

Salad bowl with grains onions
Salad bowl with grains onions - Panera Bread

Back to Panera Bread, but this time for the Mediterranean Greens With Grains. A farro and rice blend forms the base of this salad, alongside romaine lettuce and mixed greens. Atop of that you'll find hummus, feta, red onion, Peppadew peppers, cucumber, and shawarma seasoning. We're always glad to see farro on any salad's ingredient list; higher in fiber than most other grains, it can be helpful for aiding both digestion and heart health.

On the side, you'll also get a Greek dressing. Its primary ingredient is soybean oil, which has been subject to some mixed research over the years, but is generally thought to help lower cholesterol. The rest is bulked out with vinegar, pomace olive oil, lemon juice concentrate, and a handful of dehydrated herbs. On the whole, Panera is pretty strict about what can and cannot go into its menu items. It maintains a strict "No No List" of the artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, and colors you won't find in its food, having ditched its last artificial preservatives in 2017. While some have criticized the store for claiming that its food is "clean" for the sake of marketing, it's good to know that the chain is careful in selecting its ingredients.

Parmesan Caesar Salad, Wendy's

Parmesan Caesar salad bowl
Parmesan Caesar salad bowl - Wendy's

Back in 2019, Wendy's decided to put its own spin on the classic Caesar salad. The result was its Parmesan Caesar Salad -- a classic blend of romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, Wendy's Caesar Dressing, and croutons, with a not-so-classic Italian cheese blend (Parmesan, Asiago, and Romano). Wendy's is surprisingly well-regarded when it comes to salads, with 27% of participants in a Mashed survey declaring that it had the best options of all fast food chains. But how respectable are its ingredients?

The answer is "decent" -- if you make one minor switch. Wendy's Caesar Dressing contains some relatively unfavorable additives, such as disodium glutamate (which can trigger reactions in those sensitive to MSG) and calcium disodium EDTA (which isn't absorbed particularly well by your digestive tract). A healthier choice would be to opt for the Pomegranate Vinaigrette Dressing, which contains fewer additives (but does still contain less than 2% calcium disodium EDTA), or skip the dressing completely.

Wendy's makes all of its salads in-store daily, so you know you're getting the freshest mix possible. As Wendy's then-Executive Vice President, Chief Concept & Marketing Officer Kurt Kane bragged upon the salad's launch, "You can't find this level of commitment everywhere, but our fans deserve the best and we're here to deliver it."

Veggie Delite Salad, Subway

Salad in plastic bowl
Salad in plastic bowl - Subway

It should come as no surprise that a salad named "Veggie Delite" is packed with, well veggies. This takes the contents of the Subway sandwich with the same name (lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, black olives, and red onions) and puts them into a bowl sans-bread for a lighter, less caloric meal.

Subway famously only uses fresh vegetables in its offerings, so you can rest easy knowing your salad hasn't sat wilting for hours or days at a time. The Veggie Delite also uses more varied ingredients than a lot of fast food chains, such as black olives (available depending on your location). The nutritional value of olives should be enough to convince you to give this salad a try; packed with vitamin E, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats, studies suggest it has a positive impact on your body's blood sugar and reduce inflammation.

If you opt to go dressing-free with this salad, you're eating pure, fresh veggies, which is arguably the highest quality meal you could get. However, if you do want to add a dressing, we recommend choosing one of the lighter options, such as the oil (which is a blend of canola and olive oil), or red vinegar, or both.

Garden Salad With Grilled Chicken, Jack In The Box

Salad with cheese, chicken, dressing
Salad with cheese, chicken, dressing - Jack in the Box

The Jack in the Box Garden Salad With Grilled Chicken is exactly what it says in the tin. Mixed greens are combined with grilled chicken, grape tomatoes, shredded carrots, cheddar, croutons, and Jack's Famous Buttermilk Ranch dressing to create a surprisingly protein-heavy alternative to the chain's cheeseburgers and tacos.

This salad is very veggie-heavy, meaning the majority of each bowl is made up of vitamins, antioxidants, and dietary fiber -- the last of which receives a boost from the grape tomatoes. Rich in lycopene and vitamins A and C, these tiny red fruits (yes, tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables) are valuable additions to any dish. The fact that the salad is packed out with these kinds of ingredients goes a long way with the salad's nutritional values; compared to a lot of fast food salads, it's relatively low in both saturated fat and sugar, 3.5 grams and 2 grams respectively per 257 gram serving.

Again, we'd recommend either skipping or minimizing the dressing. This the element of the salad that doesn't impress us as much. Jack's Famous Buttermilk Ranch dressing contains additives such as polysorbate 60, which may have unwanted gastrointestinal effects, and maltodextrin, which has also been seen to disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut. We would also probably skip out on the combo. This pairs the salad with a medium order of french fries, which are of a decidedly lower quality thanks to the amount of oil.

Super Green Goddess, Sweetgreen

Bowl of vegetables and dressing
Bowl of vegetables and dressing - Sweetgreen

Sweetgreen is on an ambitious mission to "reimagine fast food for a new era" (via the Sweetgreen website). To make this happen, it's prepares all of its dishes from scratch and has built a transparent supply chain. All of its eggs are cage-free -- and its mayonnaise only uses cage-free eggs, too -- and Sweetgreen partners with Compassion in World Farming to ensure its chicken is raised ethically.

Considering the amount of effort that goes into sourcing these ingredients, all of its salads are a surefire bet for high-quality ingredients. We're particularly fond of the Super Green Goddess, a fiber-rich salad that includes chickpeas, roasted sweet potatoes, raw carrots, spicy broccoli, shredded cabbage, roasted almonds, baby spinach, and shredded kale. Sweet potatoes bulk out a huge portion of this salad, which brings many health benefits to the table -- such as promoting gut and heart health, and lowering LDL cholesterol.

On the side is the green goddess ranch dressing, for which Sweetgreen previously shared the exact recipe on TikTok. A mixture of salt, pepper, chopped red onions, garlic, herbs, dill, basil leaves, cilantro, and parsley are combined with lemon juice, white wine vinegar, Sweetgreen hot sauce, yogurt, and mayonnaise. Whole, fresh ingredients are the key here, which is rare for a fast food salad dressing. Sweetgreen doesn't use artificial preservatives or refined sugars, and receives all of its veggies whole and untouched, making them a go-to for a high-quality lunch.

Side Salad, Dairy Queen

Salad with croutons on plate
Salad with croutons on plate - Dairy Queen

As far as salads, the Dairy Queen Side Salad has an extremely short ingredients list, which works to its benefit. A bed of fresh lettuce is stacked with diced tomatoes, carrot, and red cabbage, as well as a scattering of croutons. In other words, this is basically just straight-up vegetables packed with fiber, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, meaning it doesn't really have the chance to be anything but high-quality.

There's no protein here and the serving size means this is very much a side or a snack, not a main meal. You'll also need to be careful with your dressing. Dairy Queen gives you the choice of pre-packaged Kraft Fat-Free Italian Dressing, Kraft Honey Mustard Dressing, and Marzetti Light Italian Dressing. If it's high-quality ingredients you're after, however, we recommend going dressing-free. None of these dressings are extraordinarily high in calories, but they're also packed with preservatives and colors.

Chicken Caesar Asiago, Au Bon Pain

Salad bowl on marble
Salad bowl on marble - Au Bon Pain

Despite the name (which quite literally translates to "from good bread"), Au Bon Pain has a stellar lineup of salads on its menu. The chain has an ethos of making everything with wholesome ingredients like those used in your own kitchen. When it comes to its Chicken Asiago Salad, that means there are just four simple ingredients at work: grilled chicken, romaine lettuce, Asiago cheese, and croutons. The latter are housemade with Au Bon Pain's Rustic Baguette, which is also baked in-house.

Dressings are typically the downfall of most fast food salads, but the situation isn't quite as dire at Au Bon Pain. Quality-wise, your best choice is the Balsamic Vinaigrette, which has a relatively straightforward ingredients list (the only additive is xanthan gum, which may irritate those with corn allergies but otherwise has been linked to positive health effects such as promoting the feeling of fullness and lowering blood sugar).

Read the original article on Mashed.